Sunday, November 15, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Castellio's Lament"

Romans 8:28-34

28 We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. 30 Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified. 

31 So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? 33 Who will bring a charge against God’s elect people? It is God who acquits them. 34 Who is going to convict them? It is Christ Jesus who died, even more, who was raised, and who also is at God’s right side. It is Christ Jesus who also pleads our case for us.  (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week Four

The anguish of the man’s words could almost seep through the pages—if I had read his words on physical pages, rather than digitally, something I am sure he would’ve thought an incomprehensible innovation back in October of 1553.

That month, a man denounced for his beliefs by both Protestants and Catholics alike, Michael Servetus, was executed for heresy—burned at the stake, as was the fate of many heretics then, so that there would be no remains.  Servetus was prosecuted in no small part by the titanic church reformer John Calvin, and it was Calvin’s role in this whole sordid affair of putting another man to death for his beliefs that caused Sebastian Castellio such great anguish and lament.

You see, Protestants like Castellio and Calvin had spent the past several decades being persecuted for their belief in the Reformation—they were excommunicated, exiled, and in some cases, executed themselves, just like Michael Servetus.  And so Castellio could not bear seeing someone who ought to have known exactly how it felt to be so forsaken turn around and treat another man thusly.

Castellio’s lament exists today in the form of a book, De Haereticis, an sint Persequendi, which roughly translated, means, “Should Heretics be Persecuted?”  In it, he writes in part:

When Servetus fought with reason and writings, he should have been repulsed by reason and writings…it is unchristian to use arms against those who have been expelled from the Church, and to deny them rights common to all mankind.

Notice that in making this argument, Castellio is declining to refer to Servetus as a heretic—he has come to believe that there is no such thing, objectively, as a heretic, and that a heretic only exists in the mind of another person—that is, if I disagree with your interpretation of God or the Bible, I must be a heretic.  Not because I am one, but because you claim I am one.

It really requires you to change the way you look at people who don’t think the way you do.  And we must in fact change the way we look at such folk, for as Paul writes in today’s passage, it is God who acquits His elect.  And if His elect contains people you or I may not deign to call Christian, or lovers of Jesus Christ, or people of good faith, then I’m afraid that we are in for a massive shock in heaven.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning three weeks ago with the first eleven verses, and then last week with the subsequent five, all of which dealt with the nature of the Spirit and its fostering of selflessness rather than our prior and inherent selfishness.  Last week, we thematically moved on to the Spirit’s relationship not just with us as individuals, but with all of creation, with “sighs too deep for words,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 26, from which this series got its title, and today, we arrive at the start of Paul’s conclusions to all of these different things, and he covers a ton of ground in doing so!

In reading this series of verses, it is quite easy to in fact come away thinking like Calvin—doesn’t “God knew them in advance…those whom God decided in advance would be conformed to His Son, He also called” in verses 29 and 30 sound an awful lot like the Calvinist notion of predestination, which posits that our ultimate fates are sealed before we are ever even born, and that there is nothing we can do to change that fate?  It sure sounds like that’s the case.

Except, lend an ear to what Paul is saying in the verse before all of that, in verse 28, that begins this passage: “We know God works all things together for good for the ones who love God.”  That love is an active choice we make, we choose to love as we choose to do anything else.  We can elect to be loving or unloving, faithful or unfaithful, and so we can choose whether to love God as well.

If we do, then what Paul says becomes true: God works all things together for good.  And that good, of course, is God’s grace and the opportunity of salvation, extended to all to accept.  But we cannot take credit for choosing to accept it, which is where we often run into trouble.  From Bible scholar Stephen Finlan in his book The Apostle Paul and the Pauline Tradition:

“Paul does not want anyone to take credit for his or her own salvation.  The language of being called gives God the glory.  Paul is not denying freedom of choice.  He is constantly exhorting people to choose rightly…what is highlighted in these verses is not predestination, but destiny: Paul is not looking back, but looking ahead to the perfecting and glorifying of those who accept God’s offer.”

We aren’t supposed to take credit for our own salvation, but what we often do is precisely that: not necessarily by patting ourselves on the backs for being saved, but by condemning, ostracizing, and really until rather recently in Christianity’s history, executing those who we label as “unsaved.”

People like Michael Servetus.  People like the citizens of Paris this past Friday.  People like the Syrians—refugees fleeing with their lives, and their now-dead friends and loved ones they have had to leave behind.  People like our brothers and sisters in God across time, across the earth, who have faced untold, unspeakable, unimaginable pain and anguish at the hands of those who deigned to take upon themselves the role of God the judge and cast out the other because they weren’t like us.

Who convicts us, indeed.  We convict ourselves by own actions, there is almost no need for God to convict us further, although He surely could.

But God doesn’t.  God reaches to save before to judge God reaches for salvation before condemnation, for reconciliation before estrangement, and for love before damnation.

Can we actually do likewise?  More to the point, dare we do likewise?  Because we surely can, we simply choose not to.

And by so doing, like I said, we convict ourselves.  By convicting others as heretics, we convict ourselves as heretics, as blaspheming pretenders to the name of God that is not ours to claim.

Which is precisely why we need, so deeply need, desperately require the Risen Christ to plead for us, because there are real, genuine crimes against life, against humanity, taking place right now, not just in Paris but also in Lebanon and in Kenya where hundreds likewise died in terrorist attacks over the weekend, and if we are going to instead try to convict a coffee company for plain red holiday cups, or a school district for asking a coach to pray privately rather than on the 50-yard line, then we need the Risen Christ to intervene on our behalves, because we have so lost the plot that the faith of people around us is at stake.

Don’t believe me?  Look at the massive backlash against the Christians who decided that those plain red Starbucks cups were somehow persecution.  We knew at the beginning of the week that there were way more important things than disposable coffee cups, and what has just happened in Paris, and in Beirut, and at Garissa University in Kenya, only confirms that immutable reality.

And if we ignore that reality, in favor of the persecution complexes that we have built up for ourselves, while people are dying at the hands of religious fundamentalist violence, and while prejudices and bigotry are being built against entire peoples as a result of that violence, then it can only be the grace and love of Christ Himself that can indeed save us, for we have shown that we simply cannot.

Which is, in the end, I suppose, why we should be so heartened, so encouraged, so reassured in God’s grace for each of us.

But I gotta tell you, after Paris, and Beirut, and Garissa, it’s hard to be.  It’s really, really hard.

Because it is a lot easier to be like John Calvin and want to fight fire with fire.

But that will only further the laments of the Castellios of the world who have seen the better versions of ourselves and are desperately calling us towards that reality.

Let us try to end that lament here, now, even if it won't change our reality today in the hopes that it will change our children's reality tomorrow.  That may be who we end up doing this for--not ourselves, but for our children, and grandchildren, on the far-off idealistic notion that they may one day live in a peaceful world.

So let us try to end that lament now, before another Paris occurs, for it is God who demands such goodness from us, even when we do not feel we are capable of it.

But we are.  In some deep, far-off corner of our souls, we have always been.  Because Christ pleads for us, and to us, every single day.

Thanks be to God for that.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 15, 2015

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